13 November 2009

Art#1: Spatial Music, the Music of Space

Description: There's a new art work (or at least new to me) installed outdoors in the Place des Arts in Montreal. It's on the side of the building on the north west corner of St Urbain and Ste Catherine. The building is one of those well, let's say, kind of ugly, probably late 60s vintage buildings, when concrete was the new thing, and blocky cubiness was good. The concrete in the outer walls is vertically ribbed and textured. For the installation thin vertical strips of what look to be LEDs are placed in the crevices between the ribs, on the wall running along St. Catherine and up St. Urbain. They are illuminated in rhythmed patterns, that involve all the strips, both turning them off and on, and dim and brighten them in what look to be a relatively large number of levels. Sometimes the strips flash in simple alternation, but then more complex patterns develop. In the small time I watched, one thing seemed to be that there weren't any traveling patterns, i.e., successive strips lighting up in successively different positions, so there were no effects like lights appearing to circle around a theatre marquee. (I couldn't find anything about this installation on the web.)

What was striking about this phenomenon is that after about a minute of watching this, I clearly experienced it as music. Music without sound, but clearly having the sort of rhythmed countour of a bunch of people playing jazz with one another, or perhaps drumming together, playing a minimalist piece like Terry Riley's In C, or playing in hocket style, as in the polyphonic music tradition of the Banda, in which music a group of players who are playing instruments that can only play a small number of notes, throw their few notes back and forth, create complex polyphonic patterns.

Question: So, first: interesting to experience light as music. But second: I've watched many animated films that aspire to manifest music in visual form, e.g., the work of Oskar Fischinger, but inevitably experience this as an effort to translate music into something else, that doesn't work. Perhaps this is because such films typically have the music playing along with the visuals.

But I wonder if this might be because of the spatial layout and breadth of the installation. When watching an animated film that aspires to visually show music, one grasps one picture that is internally articulating and morphing. The experience of this sculpture is more like watching independent things in the world resonating rhythmically with one another, synching, desynching, lagging, splaying spatially and temporally. I wonder if this might have to do with the phenomenon. If there's anything right to this, I wonder what this might say about music. Does music catch us because synched up spatially distributed movements of the world--the leaves blowing and pulsing across the orchard, the grass swaying and ruffling, the kids playing, the dancers dancing, the dogs circling, the gazelles stotting and bouncing, the horses galloping with legs in counterpoint--also catch us? Might there be a music of space, a way in which we sense our way through it because of its cross rhythms? This might be conceptualized as an elaboration of the sort of affordance offered by vection of the visual field in Gibson's accounts. And something like this might be at play in the visual rhythm of the colonnade, and so on.

24 October 2009

Phenomenon #1: Digits vs. the Visual Expanse they Occupy

In brief: The legibility of digits in a crossed out or highlighted series appears to block quick location of the next digit in the series to cross out.

Description: Today I was helping a friend do a manual tally of her teaching evaluations. To do this I set up a Word document with a table. In the table there was a row for each question we were to tally, with blank boxes in the row for each score on the rating scale (Excellent, Very good, etc.--lots of excellents in fact!). The plan was to record, in each box, the number of evaluations with a given score, as she read the scores aloud. Specifically, the plan was to use the tallying strategy where you make a vertical stroke for each item, up to four strokes, and then make a horizontal stroke through the group, to count five. I thought this would make for easier totalling at the end.

But it turns out that when you're doing multiple counts in different boxes, and looking from box to box, it's hard to quickly see whether there are four strokes in the group, i.e., whether a horizontal stroke is called for. (It's very different if you're doing just one count, in which case the four vertical strokes, then one horizontal, system works well.)

18 October 2009

Experiment #1: Bilingualism & Biworldism

Experimental Result: For a while now, psychologists have known that being bilingual correlates with improved performance in certain perceptual situations.

Consider a situation where you are asked to indicate whether the arrow in the centre of the following two arrays is pointing to the left or right: 1) »»»»» 2) ««»««. Results show that bilingual people are better at this task; they aren't as thrown off, we could say, by the arrows pointing in incongruent directions.

A recent article, "On the Bilingual Advantage in Conflict Processing: Now You See It, Now You Don't" (Cognition 113(2009) 135-149), probes this "bilingual advantage" in more detail, with experimental results that indicate that the relative advantage of bilinguals over monolinguals is apparent when tasks of the sort illustrated in 1) and 2) are presented in relatively rapid alternation ( vs. when blocks of the 1) task are followed by blocks of the 2) task). Also the advantage is more in response time than ability to perform the task. The discussion focuses on why this is the case: why does bilingualism confer this advantage? Is it based in some better ability to resolve conflicting information, or in better ability to attentively monitor situations, so as to apply the right kind of attention to it? The authors incline to the latter, although they can't settle the issue.

On their view, bilinguals who are able to switch between one language and another quickly, sometimes even within a conversation, need to develop an ability to monitor their linguistic/auditory context and attend to it in the right way, e.g., not listen to conversations in other languages that are going on in the background, listen to this conversation as in language X, not Y.

Discussion: This raises interesting questions about the relation between language, perception, and inhabiting the world in different ways. Putting aside questions of underlying mechanisms, this result and the phenomenon are interesting for several reasons.

17 October 2009

Animal #1: In the Sway of Light: Animal Machines and Activity-Passivity

"Bad Memories Written With Lasers" (BBC News) describes a technique wherein memories are written into fly brains with lasers. An article in the most recent Wired, "Powered By Photons" (not online yet) describes what I presume is some of the background to this sort of manipulation. Genes from an algae are introduced into the brain via viral vector, in anatomically selective regions, with selective uptake by various kinds of neurons. This allows fine targeting of the neurons that will take up the gene. The gene produces proteins that open channels in cells walls when photons hit them; another variety of such a gene-protein, responsive to a different light wavelength, closes channels. The upshot is neural firings can be controlled by light. (This area of exploration now has its own name: optogenetics.)

Rewriting Memory, Rewriting Self

This is my first blog. I am finding myself going back and editing previous posts. And adding new material. This seems appropriate given the exploratory dimension of the blog--it seems write to add questions, observations to old material. And it seems appropriate to the theme of learning to be--I'm in the process of learning to blog, learning to be this blogger.

But, I wonder if that's what others do too. So my impression of the blogs as an archive of things said in the fixed past is wrong? These are not publications, like newspaper articles, but ongoing growing things?

Question: A question about memory, then. Will I remember in the future that this record I am leaving behind is one that I went back to and rewrote? There isn't any edit trail, as at WikiPedia. What will that do to my memory of who I am or more accurately, who I will turn out to have been?

Waking #2: Cantonese Ear Worm

Description: I wake up in the morning with an ear worm running through my head. This is a technical term, from the delightful German Ohrwurm, for a song that gets stuck running in your head. This is fine enough, not unusual, except that the song seems to be in a language I do not know how to speak, namely Cantonese. At least that is what I would say: I don't know any of the various Chinese languages, but the song I am hearing has the distinctive "shr she" pitched syllables that, when I hear spoken, get me to think "this is Chinese"; and I'm thinking what I most hear spoken in Toronto and Montreal when I hear Chinese is Cantonese.

Anyway, this appears to be a (let's say) Cantonese cover of "Killing Me Softly With His Song", the first two phrases. I think that this must have to do with the very convivial dinner I had with a bunch of friends in the Chinese Restaurant de Bonheur the other night. It's some sort of recent memory based ear worm. Significantly, at this dinner, one of my friends was speaking in Chinese with the waiters, and also saying how his Chinese wasn't very good, but I remember that at the time I was listening along with him in the way of wanting to be able to speak his language.

Question: What does this mean about the ear worm phenomenon and about our memory for song, voice, language?

15 October 2009

Waking #1: On the Spatiality of Equipment

Description: I am making my morning espresso. I pull out the hopper full of ground coffee, put in the scoop, fill it to heaping, pull it out, reach for the spatula to level it off. The phone rings. I rest the scoop in the hopper, and go to answer the phone. I have a five minute conversation.

I go back to the counter and espresso machine, pull the scoop out of the hopper. I cannot find the spatula. Where is it? Eventually I see that it is right where it always is when I reach for it in the morning, on the flat top of the espresso machine. Why can't I see it, even though it is right there where it always is, where I usually look for it?

Observation: When I usually reach for the spatula, I am not reaching for it ‘where it is’, either in the sense of: where it is as located in such and such a measurable position, or: where it is in the sense of: in its own spot.


This blog is devoted to the idea that the phenomenon of development is fundamental to life and human life. It seeks to explore development and related phenomena using the philosophical method of phenomenology, especially as developed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The aim is especially to show how embryogenesis, growth, maturation, aging, the development of movement, habits and learning—and the relation of all of these to the living, especially animal, world around us—are dimensions that crucially and ongoingly inform human life. We humans are remarkable animals: we are all born ‘pre-mature,’ continuing our gestation outside the womb. One is always still being born. The aim here is to show how one’s ongoing birth is never quite over—one is always learning to be, via one’s developmental relation with one’s social, cultural and natural environment.

But this is just the beginning. And the character of such a beginning, of a project on development, is that we still have to get there.